More photos from the renovation of a 1721 house

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I took some more photos this morning of the renovation of First Parish in Cohasset’s 1721 Parish House. No more surprises today. The cladding that was removed yesterday — 5/4 pine milled to mimic stone — is associated with Colonial Revival, an architectural style of the mid- to late nineteenth century. So the appearance we had become accustomed to was really a nineteenth century invention.

By this morning, the original framing was clearly revealed. The framing is beautiful in its own right. Here are some photos:

House with siding removed, which exposes the old timber framing
With the clapboards and nogging removed, the framing is clearly visible
Close up photo of framing
Joint between the girt and the post at the northeast corner of the house — you can see a treenail (or trunnel) and other details of the framing
Close up of framing
The girt with second floor joists and wall studs

It’s fun to speculate what the front facade of the building looked like in 1721. Based on what we’ve seen so far, and based on what would have been typical of that era, I’m guessing that the windows had smaller panes, and were somewhat differently proportioned (in my imagination, the second floor windows were double hung windows with 9 over 9 sash, and the first floor windows were 12 over 9). There were no pediments over the windows. The cladding was thin graceful clapboards, perhaps with no paint, nailed on with forged nails that had large heads. There were probably no corner boards, and it’s unlikely there was a front vestibule. All of the wood used to construct the house was cut from local trees, and the brick-and-mortar noggin was also of local manufacture. The glass would have been hand-blown, and therefore slightly wavy.

All this raises the difficult question of how we should restore historic buildings. Even if we knew exactly what the building looked like (and we can’t be sure), First Parish does not have the budget to purchase authentic windows with hand-blown glass and hand-made sash and frame. Nor would such windows be energy-efficient. I suspect the neighbors would not like it if we left the facade unpainted; white paint is de rigueur in New England historic districts. Even if unpainted clapboards were acceptable, we would not be able to find old-growth Eastern White Pine, and something like unpainted Western Red Cedar would look wrong. I suspect we would also receive pushback if we had no corner boards (plus, we would have to change the siding around each corner to match, which would add even more to the expense).

In my experience, historic renovation is always a compromise between historically informed research and current aesthetic standards, between practicality and community standards, between what would be nice or best and what the building owner can actually afford. The best way to reach an appropriate compromise is through community review (i.e., going through the Historic District Commission), accompanied by good-faith efforts on the part of the owner of the building.

Renovating a 1721 building, and what we found

We’re completing the final stage of renovations on our historic buildings. The renovation began in 2021 with extensive repairs to the 1747 Meeting House. Now we’re working on repairing the crumbling facade of the Parish House, which was built in 1721 by Nehemiah Hobart, the first minister of First Parish. The Livingstone Company arrived today to begin work.

And we ran into a big surprise.

The front facade was wood milled to resemble masonry blocks. Here’s a 1936 photo showing the facade (click on any photo to see a larger image):

Detail from an old photo
1936 Historic American Building Survey photo of the 1721 Nehemiah Hobart House in Cohasset

But there was something completely different underneath that.

Under the existing cladding, we found old clapboards. So the front facade was originally covered with clapboards!

Not only that, but the clapboards that were uncovered may be the original 1721 clapboards. They’re attached to the house with what may be hand-made cut nails with forged heads. Each clapboard is about three and a half feet long, and the butt ends are feathered where they overlap. The outer faces of these old clapboards are well weathered, and it appears that they were never painted. [Update, 8/22: A neighbor stopped by who has a graduate degree in historic architecture. He believes the clapboards are pre-Revolutionary War, but later than 1721. He believes they’re from the 1760s.]

Here are some photos to show you what we found:

The front of the Parish House with the old clapboards revealed
The front of the Parish House showing the remaining original clapboards
Close-up of clapboards
Detail showing how the butt ends of the clapboards are carefully overlapped

There were some more surprises.

Under the clapboards, the spaces between the frame of the house were filled with old brick and mortar (called “nogging”). Some of the bricks appear to be quite old — not the modern water-struck brick, but irregular bricks that may have been hand-made. This apparently served as insulation and/or fireproofing for the house.

Close-up of clapboards with ruler to show size
The old clapboards nailed to the house frame, with bricks and mortar under the clapboards — you can also see the back side of the lath and plaster of the inside the house

And there were still more surprises in store.

When the triangular pediments over the first floor windows were removed, it appears that the original opening was for taller windows. We were pretty sure that the windows on the front facade were not original (the sash appear to date from the nineteenth century), and this may confirm that supposition.

You could also see where the ends of the floor joists for the second floor were mortised into the girt or cross-wise beam. Notice how the original window frame apparently went right up to the girt, and the opening has been blocked in with a piece of lumber that is machine sawn, not hand hewn. This means the original first floor windows were probably significantly taller than the existing ones. And you can see a builder’s mark, “XII,” which would have indicated which beam went with which post when erecting the finished posts and beams.

Close-up of framing and clapboards over a window
Above the window just to the left of the front door — the builder’s mark is chiseled into the girt above the left edge of the window

We’re now in the process of consulting with the Cohasset Historic District Commission. We received a permit from them based on replacing wood milled to mimic stone. But it’s now clear that this was a much later addition to the building. (I’m guessing it was added at least a hundred years after the house was built, i.e., in the nineteenth century.)

In any case, it has been an exciting day today, as we learned a lot more about our historic 1721 Parish House.

I’ll include a couple more photos below, for those who can’t get enough of historic buildings.

Click to read the follow-up post….

Close-up photo of some of the clapboards
A section of the clapboards
Corner bracing near the front door